CWG 2022 – Scary vs Ind

When Smriti Mandhana started playing cricket as an 11-year-old, she wanted to bat like Matthew Hayden. However, she quickly remodeled herself around Kumar Sangakkara and Sourav Ganguly once coaches told her that timing, and not brute force, was her forte.

The same coaches would have watched Mandhana’s daredevilry at India’s CWG 2022 semi-final against England with delight.

Take for example that six off Issy Wong in the third over. A pull in front of square to a short ball whose length she picked up in a jiffy. Even though the boundaries at Edgbaston had been brought in considerably, the shot would have gone for six at most grounds.

It was another example of the transformation Mandhana’s has undergone. She has tried to consciously work on her power-hitting, ever since becoming a regular in the WBBL. A debut season for Brisbane Heat in 2016-17, in which she managed all of 89 runs in 10 innings, proved to be an eye-opener.

On surfaces with bounce, Mandhana realized she needed to find new ways of scoring, and not just trust her on-the-up drives. She started working hard on her pull. Her height would allow her to get on top of the bounce most times; it was just a matter of having control over the stroke without losing its balance. Today, Mandhana has one of the best pull shots in women’s cricket.

And as with most good players, she has expanded her game in multiple directions. She has frequently brought out the conventional sweep, and on Saturday, perhaps for the first time in a big game, you saw her playing the scoop and the delicate paddle.

You may ask why a player of her caliber needs to try and get inventive behind the stumps when she has all the shots in front of it. Well, according to her captain Harmanpreet Kaur, this was Mandhana’s way of pushing boundaries and trying to “think out of the box” for the team’s benefit.

Mandhana’s 23-ball half-century against England spoke of her intention to dominate from the get-go. Her assertiveness in the very first over, against Katherine Brunt, laid down a marker. England may have expected Shafali Verma to take the attack to them. Instead, Mandhana decided this was her stage to set on fire with some breathtaking shots – none played in anger.

This meant Shafali quickly slipped into a support role, flipping the script of several of her earlier partnerships with Mandhana.

It isn’t just Mandhana who has grown significantly as a batter over recent months. India’s innings against England also showcased the evolution of Jemimah Rodrigues, who gave the innings its finishing touches.

Rodrigues’ career has hit a number of speed bumps since she broke through as a prodigiously talented 18-year-old. When she was in form, there were no vacancies in the middle order. And when she went through a prolonged run of poor scores, she admitted to being lost.

When the pandemic set in and threw cricket calendar off the rails, Rodrigues was a constant presence on the internet with her smash hit YouTube show along with Mandhana. The pair interviewed several sports personalities and added their own touch of humor and color to long lockdown hours.

It was during one such conversation with Rohit Sharma that Rodrigues happened to touch upon the topic of consistency. Rohit spoke of his struggle to deal with expectations in the first 5-6 years of his career, and how he overcame that by building a “shield” around himself, and on relying on family and friends to distract him from the game.

Rodrigues has since spoken about how this chat with Rohit – and other conversations with others including Rishah Pant – helped her deal with her own struggles.

The current version of Rodrigues is defined by her awareness and clarity of thought, which she has shown right through the past week at the Commonwealth Games. In a must-win game against Barbados, she anchored India’s innings with an unbeaten half-century. Against England, with the stakes even higher, she produced a masterclass in strike rotation to make an unbeaten 31-ball 44. At frequent points during her innings, she stepped to the leg side to hit inside-out and access the cover region, both off spin and medium pace.

Rodrigues knows she isn’t a power-hitter, but she is aware of the damage she can inflict by relying on her old-school virtues of timing and hand-eye coordination, which she attributes to her fondness for hockey.

India may have been dreaming of at least 180 when they were 64 without loss after the powerplay, but those hopes quickly hit a roadblock. Rodrigues was in the middle at a stage where the innings needed calm. She provided that, and when it was time to tee off, she did so while trusting in her own methods. It proved to be the difference between India finishing with 145 and making 164.

The contributions of Mandhana and Rodrigues, good friends and team-mates at West Zone long before they played for India, have provided a glimpse into a potential shift in India’s overall T20 game, away from conservatism and towards a more forward-looking approach.

This approach has taken them into the gold-medal match; if Mandhana and Rodrigues can deliver in that game on Sunday, they may just usher in a new chapter in Indian women’s cricket.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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